Previously a synonym for brilliant football and impressive youngsters, the Netherlands have dropped from the top tier in recent years. But, as Colin Millar writes, they’re on their way back
As world football’s biggest tournament got underway in Russia last summer, there was one absentee whose failure to reach the World Cup no longer registered as a great surprise. The Netherlands were edged out in the 2010 Final while four years later they recorded a third-placed finish. Perhaps the most famed football nation never to have lifted the famed trophy, the Dutch had built a reputation of a seasoned challenger who were capable of producing the world’s best players.
Yet the elite group of core players who propelled their successes in 2010 and 2014 have all now left the international scene. Winger Arjen Robben, striker Robin van Persie and playmaker Wesley Sneijder gave the Oranje an often-decisive attacking edge, coupled with a stern and well-organised defence. But the pool of talent dried up with few stars being developed to replace the outgoing pillars in their side.
In October 2017, the Netherlands achieved a pointless 2-0 victory over Sweden in their final match in their unsuccessful attempt to reach Russia. The line-up was hugely underwhelming – the defence consisted of Lyon’s Kenny Tete, Nathan Ake of Bournemouth and Hertha BSC’s Karim Rekik. Tonny Vilhena of Feyenoord was in midfield while the attack included Tottenham’s Vincent Janssen and journeyman Ryan Babel. It felt like a team shorn of many stars and shared closer resemblance to a reserve side, but these were the best players available. Not qualifying for the World Cup was a disappointment but an expected failure, coming in the wake of the fiasco which saw them failing to reach the 24-team European Championships in 2016.
Just over a year on, new boss Ronald Koeman guided the Flying Dutchmen to the final four of the inaugural UEFA Nations League. They topped a group including world champions France and Germany, who Les Bleus had dethroned only months earlier. Despite a narrow opening day defeat in Paris, Koeman’s men defeated Germany 3-0 at home before a 2-0 return win over the French, while two goals in the final five minutes rescued a dramatic point on the final day away to Germany to seal their progress.
It is easy to get carried away with the significance of these results. After all, the Netherlands have won just four of their last 10 internationals and their players had the summer off from football, as opposed to their Nations League opponents. Yet this should detract from the fact they have lost just once in their last nine and even that was an unfortunate defeat in the French capital. It represents real progress from their trip to Paris a year earlier in a World Cup qualifier, when the Dutch were thrashed 4-0.
But the real excitement does not lie so much in recent results but the talent that is now emerging into the first-team squad. The Netherlands have been shaken out of their mediocrity and the senior side now contains two of the most exciting emerging stars in world football. Central defender Matthijs de Ligt and midfielder Frenkie De Jong – both of Ajax, although de Jong has reached an agreement with Barcelona on an €85 million summer transfer – are very much deserving of the hype that has surrounded their rise to the top.
De Ligt is the Amsterdam club’s captain despite being aged just 19 and he starred in their run to the 2017 Europa League Final. De Jong is a fleet-footed, inventive trickster in the centre of the pitch who has the ability to light up any game. “My quality is my intuition. I can’t just ignore that, can I?” de Jong told the Dutch magazine Voetbal International last year. “Then I’d be a player of whom there are a thousand of my age.” Both were influential in Ajax’s first qualification for the Champions League last 16 since 2003 and they have had a similar impact on their national side.
There is more to the new-look Netherlands team than just the Ajax duo, with Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk, the world’s most expensive defender who is swiftly becoming the world’s most complete defender. Forming a formidable central defensive partnership with de Ligt, this plays a large role in explaining the nation’s consecutive home clean sheets against France and Germany. However, the 27-year-old is also a massive threat at the other end of the pitch and scored in both Nations League fixtures against Germany, while he was also on target in the 3-0 friendly victory in Portugal a year ago.
There are other important players too – Jasper Cillessen may not be first choice goalkeeper at Barcelona but there are few better back-ups, while defenders Daley Blind and Stefan de Vrij are not out of place on an elevated stage either. Memphis Depay is now developing into the star attacking player at Lyon that many had hoped he would become at Manchester United. It is easy to forget he is just 24 and already has 13 international goals to his name. There are also hopes for others that have emerged through the Ajax youth academy including midfield Donny van de Beek and forward Justin Kluivert, son of legendary striker Patrick, who is now at Roma.
There are certainly plenty of reasons for optimism for fans of the Dutch and it is likely they will end their exodus from major competitions by the time the 2020 European Championships arrive. But there are still doubts over just how far this Netherlands side can go. There remains a lack of genuine strength in depth possessed by several other of Europe’s established leading nations, with many established Eredivisie players and those playing at other, non-elite European sides.
The aim for boss Ronald Koeman must be to end their exodus from the most significant tournaments whilst hoping that the nation’s youth systems continue to churn out players with potential to make a tangible difference at the top end of European football. Crucially, the Netherlands are back on the right path and now have a team worthy of a nation with illustrious football ambitions.